[KS] FW: H-ASIA: REVIEW Weathersby on Shen, _Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist Relations in the 1950s_

Frank Joseph Shulman fshulman at umd.edu
Sat Apr 13 23:28:40 EDT 2013

From: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture [H-ASIA at H-NET.MSU.EDU] on behalf of Frank Conlon [conlon at U.WASHINGTON.EDU]
Sent: Thursday, April 11, 2013 4:14 PM
Subject: H-ASIA: REVIEW Weathersby on Shen, _Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist Relations in the 1950s_

April 11, 2013

Book Review (orig. pub. H-Diplo) by Kathryn Weathersby on Zhihua Shen
_Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist Relations in the

(x-post H-Review)
From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>

Zhihua Shen.  Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist
Relations in the 1950s.  Milton Park, Abingdon  Routledge, 2012.
xiii + 249 pp.  $135.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-51645-7; ISBN

Reviewed by Kathryn Weathersby (Johns Hopkins University)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2013)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

The Korean War in the Context of Sino-Soviet Relations

The publication of Shen Zhihua's _Mao, Stalin and the Korean War
_marks a significant advance in English-language literature on the
Korean War. A Russia specialist, Shen has long been China's leading
historian of the Korean War, tirelessly pioneering research into
Chinese archival documents and making the abundant declassified
Russian documents available in Chinese translation. The original 2003
version of this book was a sensation in China as the first
non-propagandistic, scholarly account of this pivotal event in the
history of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Former State
Department officer Neil Silver has done a great service to
English-speaking readers by painstakingly translating and adapting
this important work.

Shen investigates two central questions about the war: why Stalin
decided to support a North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 and
why the Chinese leadership decided to enter the war in October 1950.
Unlike most English-language accounts of the war, which examine its
outbreak in terms of the Soviet/American conflict, Shen places
Stalin's decisions regarding Korea in the context of his rapidly
changing relations with the Chinese Communist leadership. Drawing on
both Chinese and Russian sources, Shen charts Stalin's ambivalent
approach to the Chinese party from 1945 to the end of 1949. He argues
that the Soviet leader was determined to maintain the territorial
gains in the Far East which he had secured through the Yalta system,
which were contingent on his conclusion of a treaty with the
Nationalist government. He therefore supported his Chinese comrades
only sporadically. For the same reason, throughout this period he
maintained a defensive position in regard to a divided Korea. The
decision to establish an alliance with the PRC, made in early January
1950, fundamentally changed the equation. In negotiating the terms of
the alliance treaty, the Chinese leadership held firm to their demand
that the Soviet Union relinquish control of its important assets in
Manchuria, the Russian-built Changchun railroad and the ports of
Lushun and Dalian at its terminus that provided Moscow its only
ice-free access to the Pacific. To compensate for the loss of these
strategically essential holdings, Stalin backed Kim Il Sung's assault
on South Korea, since control of the entire peninsula by the much
more tractable North Koreans would assure Moscow access to the ports
of Pusan and Inchon.

Shen's analysis of the impact of the Sino-Soviet alliance on Soviet
policy toward Korea enriches our understanding of the reasons Stalin
took the risky step of invading the Republic of Korea. However, Shen
surprisingly omits discussion of NSC-48, the American strategic
strategy for East Asia adopted in late December 1949 in response to
the establishment of the People's Republic of China. In this new
policy, the United States prioritized its goals in the region given
the limited military resources it retained after postwar
demobilization. Thus, it committed itself to the defense of Japan,
the Philippines, and the small islands to the east that had been
taken from Japan at the end of the war. Territories to the west,
including Korea and Taiwan, lay outside the new defense perimeter.

I have argued that Stalin learned immediately of the substance of
NSC-48, most likely from Donald McLean, his highly placed British spy
in Washington, and that knowledge of this policy led Stalin to
conclude that the United States would not intervene to protect South
Korea. A record of Stalin's conversations with Kim Il Sung in April
1950 quoted by Russian scholars Evgenii Bazhanov and Natalia
Bazhanova, but not included in Shen's account, reveals that the
Soviet leader explained to his Korean protege that it was now
possible to assist him in his military campaign against the South
because of the victory of the Chinese Communists and the
disinclination of the Americans to intervene in Korea. Nonetheless,
Stalin cautioned that they must proceed carefully because the danger
of American intervention remained. He thus informed the North Korean
leader that if the Korean People's Army needed reinforcements, he
would have to turn to China; Soviet troops will not be sent to
Korea.[1] Shen's analysis broadens our understanding of the impact of
the establishment of the PRC on Stalin's policy toward Korea, but it
does not fully explain the decision for war. However much Stalin may
have desired new ports on the Pacific, he would not have authorized
the attack on South Korea unless he calculated that it would not lead
to conflict with the United States.

Shen's careful examination of his second question, which is based on
newly available Chinese sources as well as the Russian documents
released in the 1990s, provides a much fuller picture of Beijing's
decision to intervene than scholars have previously been able to
construct. Departing from the interpretation of the Chinese-American
historian Chen Jian, who argues that Mao's decision to intervene was
primarily driven by a desire to maintain revolutionary momentum
within the PRC, Shen concludes that security concerns were

Since China had barely begun to build an air force, it needed Soviet
air cover to protect both its troops entering Korea and its rear
areas in Manchuria from devastating American air attacks. Shen
documents in detail Beijing's intense negotiations with Stalin over
this issue. In the end, fearing that Soviet air involvement in Korea
would lead to all-out war with the United States, the Soviet leader
stalled for time, claiming that it would take two to two-and-a-half
months for any of the numerous Soviet air assets deployed in the Far
East to transfer to Manchuria. Since this timetable would be too late
to prevent a North Korean defeat, the Chinese leadership agreed with
Stalin's instructions to Kim Il Sung to evacuate his remaining forces
to Manchuria and the Soviet Far East.

At this point, however, Mao Zedong feared that a North Korean defeat
would transfer the war to northeast China. Although the Sino/Soviet
alliance would force the Soviet Union to support China in this war,
the outcome would be a loss of northeast China either to Moscow or
the Americans. Shen notes that after Stalin sent the Red Army into
Manchuria in 1945 to defeat Japanese troops, he was able to force
Chiang Kai-shek to sign a treaty that harmed China's interests.
Moreover, the PRC had secured the return of the Changchun Railway,
Lushun, and Dalian only through very tough negotiations, like "taking
meat out of a tiger's mouth" (p. 176). Thus, to forestall loss of
sovereignty to either great power, Mao decided to send troops to
Korea even without Soviet air cover.

In a final twist, once Chinese forces successfully engaged the far
better equipped American troops on October 25,1950, Stalin at last
decided that he could trust his Chinese allies. As is well known, the
Soviet leader had long doubted that Mao was a real Communist and
feared that he would follow the path of the independent Yugoslav
leader Marshall Tito. But just one week after the Chinese
"Volunteers" proved their mettle against the Americans, the Soviet
air force entered the war, albeit only in the rear area. As Shen
documents, both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai attributed Stalin's changed
view of the Chinese Communist Party to China's entry into the Korean

As the newly harmonious allies saved North Korea from extinction,
they also began a period of unprecedented cooperation. The Chinese
understood that Soviet air units must limit their zone of operation
to rear areas in order to avoid escalating the war. Soviet planes
thus could not provide cover for Chinese ground troops, as Beijing
had initially requested, but Mao did not ask for such assistance
another time. Shen concludes that while the allies disagreed on
various tactical issues, for the remainder of the war Stalin and Mao
"were able to exchange opinions candidly, fostering the resolution of
issues between them" (p. 182). Shen emphasizes that the Soviet Union
met nearly all of China's requests for weapons and supplies, materiel
which it could not obtain anywhere else. Moscow sent torpedo boats,
floating mines, armored ships, small patrol boats, mine-sweeping
equipment, and coastal artillery, in the process creating the PRC's
navy. The Soviet Union also provided air combat advisers to train
Chinese pilots, as well as donating its new jet-powered fighter, the
MiG-15. The month before armistice negotiations began in June 1951,
Mao requested that the Soviet Union supply sixty divisions of ground
forces, an amount that exceeded Moscow's immediate capacities. In the
end, the Soviet Union agreed to supply sixteen divisions during 1951
and the remaining forty-four by 1954. By the end of the war,
fifty-six divisions had been re-equipped with Soviet arms. Moscow
also provided anti-aircraft artillery for 101 battalions as well as
artillery for two rocket divisions, fourteen howitzer divisions, two
anti-tank divisions, four searchlight regiments, one radar regiment,
and eight independent radar battalions. Twenty-eight engineering
regiments were supplied with Soviet construction equipment, as well
as ten railroad divisions.

The cooperation from Moscow that flowed from China's performance in
the Korean War extended to economic development as well. Shen writes
that the volume of Sino-Soviet trade increased nine-fold in the first
year of the war, from $26,300,000 in 1949 to $241,900,000 in 1950 (p.
191). The Soviet Union sold to China, at discounted prices, equipment
for mining, transportation, energy production, metal rolling, and
milling, as well as oil and finished steel. Moscow also sent a large
number of technicians to China and welcomed large numbers of Chinese
as students in Soviet institutions. This close cooperation ended
abruptly with the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, but as Shen emphasizes,
while it lasted it "played a major role in China's economic revival"

Neil Silver's highly readable translation of Shen Zhihua's book
includes a useful introductory essay by Yang Kuisong of Beijing
University, who takes issue with some of Shen's conclusions regarding
Stalin's motives for starting the war. With regard to China's
decision to intervene, however, Yang concludes that Shen's account is
"convincing, logical, dramatic, and on target" (p. 16). Indeed, this
path-breaking book is both fascinating and essential reading for all
scholars interested in the recent history of Northeast Asia.


[1]. Kathryn Weathersby, "Should We Fear This? Stalin and the Danger
of War with America," Working Paper No. 39, Cold War International
History Project (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars, 2002).

[2]. Chen Jian, _China's Road to the Korean War: the Making of the
Sino-American Confrontation _(New York: Columbia University Press,

Citation: Kathryn Weathersby. Review of Shen, Zhihua, _Mao, Stalin
and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist Relations in the 1950s_.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2013.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37597

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
         To post to  H-ASIA  simply send your message to:
                         <H-ASIA at h-net.msu.edu>
           For holidays or short absences send post to:
                 <listserv at h-net.msu.edu> with message:
                         SET H-ASIA NOMAIL
        Upon return, send post with message SET H-ASIA MAIL
        H-ASIA WEB HOMEPAGE URL:    http://h-net.msu.edu/~asia/

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list